2d Lt David Alman is an officer in the U.S. Air National Guard. In his civilian career, he has worked as an aerospace engineer and management consultant. Previously, he earned a BS and MS in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech. He tweets @david_alman. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The Japanese bombed the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941. The U.S. is preparing options to strike back at Japan.

Date Originally Written:  June 16, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  August 19, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a U.S. Air National Guard officer with an interest in military effectiveness and military history / historiography. This article’s point of view is from the United States military in late 1941.

Background:  In response to the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing series of Allied losses in the Pacific, President Roosevelt tasked his War Cabinet to develop plans for striking back at Japan. The objective was to raise the morale of the American people[1]. The Doolittle Raid accomplished this mission using two aircraft carriers to launch 16 aircraft to bomb Japan. The total explosive weight delivered was 32,000 pounds.

Significance:  While a heroic effort, it appears little thought was given to alternate options that might have accomplished the same goal without risking a significant portion of American combat power. It is the duty of military officers to judiciously accept risk in the pursuit of objectives. The study of history demands more than veneration for those who went into harm’s way. Instead, students of history must ask whether it was necessary for so many to go into harm’s way in the first place as part of the Doolittle Raid. This options paper identifies other viable options to place the risk-reward tradeoff of the Doolittle Raid in context.

Option #1:  The U.S. launches Air Corps bombers from Navy aircraft carriers. Since one aircraft carrier will be loaded with bombers, another aircraft carrier will be required to escort the task force. The planes, B-25 Mitchells, will be modified for extended range. The planes will land in China after completing their mission.

Risk:  This operation will risk two of seven American aircraft carriers and their escorts[2]. If lost in action, the American Navy will lose a significant portion of its striking power and the American public will have lower morale than before. This operation will also risk the 16 bombers and their crews.

Gain:  The operation will accomplish the objective if successful. This option will provide joint operations experience to the Navy-Air Corps team and could result in Japan pulling back forces to defend the home islands.

Option #2:  The U.S. constructs a forward air base in the Aleutian Islands and uses long-range B-24 bombers to strike Japan. The distance from Attu Island to Tokyo and on to Nanchang (the Doolittle Raiders’ landing point) is approximately 3,500 miles[3]. An un-modified B-24A had a ferry range of 4,000 miles[4]. A bombload equivalent to the B-25 would entail a 2,000 pound or 8% reduction in fuel, reducing range to approximately 3,700 miles[5]. With minor modifications, such as a smaller crew, this option would be sufficient for an Aleutians-launched B-24 force to reach the historical B-25 landing sites.

Risk:  Constructing an air base on Attu will be difficult. This operation will risk 16 B-24 bombers and their crews.

Gain:  The operation will accomplish the objective if successful. The use of an air base instead of U.S. Navy ships lessens the risk to the U.S. fleet. The air base in the Aleutians could be reused for other military purposes.

Option #3:  The U.S. uses Navy “cruiser” submarines to shell Japanese targets. The US Navy possesses three “cruiser” submarines, USS Argonaut, USS Narwhal, and USS Nautilus. Each of these submarines carries two 6-inch deck guns, each delivering a 105-pound explosive out to 13 miles. The submarines could surface at night off the coast of Japan and deliver 304 shells to equal the explosive weight of the Doolittle Raid. Given six guns and a fire rate of 6 rounds per minute, this would take approximately 10 minutes[6]. After completing their fires, preferably just after dark for survivability, the submarines would escape at high speed.

Risk:  This operation would risk three submarines and their crews.

Gain:  The operation will accomplish the objective if successful. It could result in Japan pulling anti-submarine warfare forces back to home waters.

Option #4:  The U.S. uses seaplanes, such as PBY Catalinas, to strike Japan. PBYs could stage from Midway Island and refuel from submarines or destroyers in the open ocean. Carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs would reduce fuel capacity by approximately 13%, leaving the seaplanes with a 2,000 mile range[7]. The seaplanes would likely refuel once approximately 800 miles off the coast of Japan (1,700 miles from Midway), conduct a max radius strike to rendezvous with the refueler approximately 1,200 miles off the coast of Japan (800 miles in, 1,200 miles out, 2,000 mile round trip – farther offshore to protect the retreating refueler), and then fly back to Midway (approximately 1,300 miles away). Refueling sixteen seaplanes twice would require a maximum of 384,000 pounds of fuel which is well within the capacity of a modified cruiser submarine.

Risk:  This operation would risk 16 aircraft and a submarine along with their crews.

Gain:  This operation will accomplish the objective if successful, and not risk any U.S. aircraft carriers.

Other Comments:  The Doolittle Raid was ultimately successful. The options presented here are intended to provoke reflection on alternate options that were never considered due to the Doolittle Raid idea coming first. Practitioners gain by critically examining military history to postulate if objectives could have been accomplished more effectively or with less risk to force.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] December 21st, 1941. Franklin D. Roosevelt Day by Day. http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/daybyday/daylog/december-21st-1941/

[2] In reality, only 6 aircraft carriers were useful given USS Ranger’s small size.

[3] This and other distances calculated using Google Maps and use great circle distance.

[4] The B-24A Liberator. The 456th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. https://www.456fis.org/B-24-A.htm and author’s math.

[5] This is an estimate based on a linear fuel burn. Two variables are responsible for the true variation from this number. One is that fuel burn throughout flight is in fact not linear. Because the airplane weighs less towards the end of its flight, the last gallons of fuel provide more range than the first gallons. The second factor is that the bombs are not carried for the whole flight because they are dropped on their target.

[6] 6”/53 (15.2 cm) Marks 12, 14, 15, and 18. NavWeaps. http://www.navweaps.com/Weapons/WNUS_6-53_mk12.php

[7] Author’s math.